Mimi Zhu on Writing Their Debut Book and Re-Learning Love

YouMimi Zhu was barely two weeks into her COVID-19 isolation in New York City. In March 2020 Mimi Zhu became a writer and artist. The night before, Britney Spears had reposted a piece of art from Zhu’s Instagram about connection in the age of coronavirus. The post called for strikes and the redistribution of wealth, leading many to temporarily dub Spears “Comrade Britney” because of its socialist undertones. But the true appeal of Zhu’s piece lay in the way it tapped into the universal yearning that social distancing had created: “We will learn to kiss and hold each other through the waves of the web.”

Zhu’s missive, so specific to the moment in which they wrote it, also speaks to the broader impact of their work. Their Instagram meditations—bold blocks of text set against radiant colored backgrounds—capture emotions that many people experience but might feel too vulnerable to declare out loud. Captioned with unflinchingly honest titles like “feeling undesirable/forgotten,” Zhu’s posts are intimate and heart-tugging, centered around radical love and rooted in a desire to heal. “Likeability is not the antidote for loneliness,” they write in one. “I have contorted myself to appease many people, and despite winning their affections, I felt drained and even lonelier.” These posts have made the 28-year-old artist, who was born in Australia to Chinese immigrant parents, a vital voice in queer, BIPOC spaces online. The couple has over 100,000 Instagram followers, and also have an email newsletter. Writing is the best medicine.This site is used by hundreds of subscribers.

“With the online world, as wonderful a tool as it is, I always keep in mind that it’s only one dimension,” Zhu says IRL in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, serene despite sweltering summer heat. Online, Zhu’s persona is compassionate and tender; in person, their energy is even more gentle. “The internet is a space for us all to feel less alone and to let a lot out, but we don’t have to share every part of ourselves… I reserve a lot for myself, which is a boundary.”

Boundaries play an important role in Zhu’s debut book Don’t be afraid of love: Lessons from fear, intimacy, and connectionComing August 23rd. The book is part memoir, part essay collection, and part spiritual guide, a rumination on healing and Zhu’s journey to rediscover what it means to give and receive love after what they describe as a violent romantic relationship in their early 20s with a person they refer to as X. They explore the complicated and interconnected feelings they felt during the journey to emotional intimacy after being abused by their intimate partner. They discover in one chapter that anger can lead to radical changes and protection if it is expressed properly. In another chapter they discuss relationships and their definition of unconditional love.

The writing process Don’t be afraid of loveIt took Zhu two years to complete the project, which was cathartic as well as healing. They strove to capture nuances that they did not see in the books they read or media stories they consumed about surviving abuse—narratives that either took a clinical approach or oversimplified the experiences of survivors, portraying them as helpless victims or opportunists who found a way to profit off their pain.

“Having that lack of nuance was pretty isolating, to be honest,” Zhu says. “I really wanted to bring forward a perspective that it’s not always either/or, that we shouldn’t feel compelled to sell our trauma or prove that we’re so much better than this or sink deep into shame.”

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Zhu is a constant seeker of the personal in the political, and vice-versa. They don’t shy away from revisiting generational trauma in their family, which was impacted by their move from China to Australia, or delving into painful memories with ex-lovers. This is a poignant piece of Don’t be afraid of love, Zhu processes their ex’s Asian fetish, drawing a line between X’s sexual interests and the history of orientalism, Western domination, and white supremacist ideology.

The book has an academic quality that may come as a surprise to fans of Zhu’s work on social media. They sprinkle footnotes referencing everything from Granger E. Westberg’s grief model to resources for mutual aid throughout the text, and draw as much from psychology, Buddhist philosophies, and the teachings of activists like bell hooks and Audre Lorde as they do from their own experiences. Zhu explores the impacts of structural inequities like access to physical and mental health care and the U.S. immigration system—and connects those impacts to their personal life and relationship with X. Zhu chose to not involve police despite all the abuse they suffered from their ex. “It spoke volumes that I did not feel safe, protected, or secure in relation to either X or the carceral state,” they write. “I knew that there would not be true justice. Calling the police to arrest X would not stop his violence.”

Years later, Zhu is more focused on developing self-love and connecting authentically with others than achieving the law’s idea of justice. These are the final chapters in Don’t be afraid of love glory in the renewing powers of community and the relationships—with others and with themself— that brought them to these priorities. Their belief is that healing can be a journey. “The end of the book is not the end of my life,” Zhu says. “I’m still very much healing, but I have arrived at a place where I feel a lot more embodied in love.”

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